Comes Naturally #42 (January 12, 1996):
Crossing the Public-Private Sex Boundary: An Ode to Sex Parties

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Spectator Magazine - January 12, 1996
(c) David Steinberg

Crossing the Public-Private Sex Boundary: An Ode to Sex Parties

Finding My Way to My First Sex Party

The first contact I ever had with the world of sex parties (once called orgies; once called swings) was when I stumbled onto a magazine that contained nothing but swingers' ads. It was, I think, somewhere in the early 70s, at a local porn store. Aside from a few little articles, the magazine contained nothing but page after page of classified ads in which hundreds of men, women, and couples claimed to be interested in meeting other people with the specific purpose of having sex with them. The format of the ads was pretty uniform: First the people described themselves physically in some detail. The truly dedicated included a sexy (sometimes not so sexy), generally down-to-earth and unglamorous, often remarkably graphic picture, sometimes of a man and a woman but more often just of the woman. They then gave a description of what sort of person or people they were looking for and what they wanted to do with them.

At first I assumed the ads were as fake as the letters to the editor in Penthouse Forum, assumed that they were written by editors to dupe people into buying the magazines with dreams of sugar plum pussies in their gullible minds. I assumed that the single women who claimed to be looking for men were, at best, professionals posing as amateurs. I simply could not believe that there were actually hundreds, thousands, of couples and single women, as well as single men, all over the country, anxious to arrange sexual encounters with appealing strangers they had contacted by mail.

Cleverly seeing through the ads as bogus didn't stop me from getting turned on by them, though. These little fifty-word specials were as hot to me as any more elaborated sexual description. Pretending that the ads were as sincere as I was certain they were not, I created visual pictures from the physical descriptions, and fantasies of what it would be like to visit the home of this woman or that couple. I liked how unglamorous and down home the pictures were, a welcome contrast to the standardized glitzy appeal of the models in porn magazines. I liked how matter-of-factly open, playfully coy, simply happy, or theatrically sexy the people in the photos seemed to be. And I liked how available these very regular people claimed to be for casual or intense sex. After a while, of course, my "realistic" mind would intervene, reminding me that my fantasies were carrying me away into wishful dreaming. Surely there was a catch somewhere, but I wasn't sure just where it was.

After wading through a few thousand ads, I found it hard to still believe that all this copy was being generated entirely by the editors of the various swingers magazine. It began to penetrate my brain that there actually were people in the world who made a practice of being sexual with relative strangers, advertising for people they didn't know specifically and explicitly because they wanted to explore the possibility of being sexual with them. I also noticed that, aside from the individual ads, there were listings in the magazines for sex clubs - - places where people got together in groups with the same unapologetic purpose of connecting with relative strangers for sex.

Some of the people in the ads sounded or looked distinctly peculiar to me, but others gave the impression of being simply open, friendly, and genuinely interested in casual sex. Who could these people be? Were they empty-hearted people lost in soulless marriages, people incapable of real intimacy who tried to fill the emotional void of their lives with meaningless sex with strangers? Or were they uninhibited sexual free spirits, people who were keeping alive some of the sexual openness of the 60's and 70's?

It was clear that the people in the ads represented all ages, social classes, races, and body types. They came from every region of the country, from big cities, small towns, and rural areas. If there was anything distinctive about this demographic subgroup it was that there seemed to be an awful lot of tall (6') men coupled with short (5'2") women. Go figure.

A Friend Brings Tales of a Foreign Land

Then one day a close woman friend told me that she had been invited to one of these swingers parties by a (male) friend of hers. I'm sure my eyes lit up when she told me this. I told her of my curiosity about the people in the swingers magazines and made her promise to bring me back a full and detailed report. My friend was a person whose perspective I knew I could trust. She was intelligent, sexually curious and open, politically aware and, like myself, a dedicated feminist.

The place she went to was Barry and Shel's. She came back with a slightly guarded but generally enthusiastic report. She liked the host and hostess very much, she said. She found them real and warm, people with whom it was easy to be herself and not put on airs. The gender roles among the guests tended to be distinctly traditional, she said, with the men doing almost all of the sexual initiating and the women generally following their lead. She reported somewhat disappointedly that almost all the sex was heterosexual, although she did see some contact among the women and felt that she could approach women sexually if she went again. Generally she liked the people there, and she definitely enjoyed that fact that person could make small talk for a few minutes and then directly propose going off to be sexual.

She definitely loved being in a house full of people where sex was openly the activity everyone was interested in. She liked that you could be sexual with other people watching, could watch other people being sexual, and often join in. She found the whole setup liberatory, enjoyed being found attractive by many different men (and some women), and had an active evening of fair, good, and wonderful sex to boot. She definitely wanted to go back for more, and after hearing her report, I wanted to check it out for myself as well. And so we added being swinging partners to our long-standing friendship, even though we were only moderately attracted to each other and rarely were sexual together even at the parties.

Can This Really Be Happening?

Crossing the line between public and private sex for the first time is a major culture shock. Sex in the presence of other people and sex with strangers are more significant taboos than having an exotic fantasy or two. Porn film affected casualness notwithstanding, stepping into a social world organized to encourage public, casual sexual encounter is more than a little disorienting. For those who successfully navigate this particular transition, it can be amazingly liberating as well.

In case you haven't been exposed to swingers culture, the layout at swing parties is something like this: There's a central living room, primarily the place for non-sexual socializing and for meeting people to be sexual with. There's a hot tub which is serves basically the same purpose as the living room, except that it's wetter and warmer. It also provides an excuse to take your clothes off. There are any number of small rooms and partitions of various descriptions where couples (or threesomes or foursomes or moresomes) can go off to be by themselves -- that is, to not be watched or joined by others. And there are group rooms where people go when they do want to be watched, when they want to watch other people, or when they want to get involved with people in a more open-ended sexual free-for-all.

I remember, at my first party, standing at the door of a group room, watching one lovely couple obviously having a wonderful time together. I knew that people were theoretically welcome to go in and out of the room at will, but this couple seemed so involved with each other that I could not help but feel that joining them would be more of a disruption than an addition to their scene. I was getting very turned on watching them, but I couldn't bring myself to actually go into the room. Finally I went down to the living room instead where I got into a conversation with a woman who gave me a dissertation about how swinging was going to revolutionize America's entire sexual culture.

When I told this woman about my conflicted feelings standing in the doorway of the group room, she laughed at my naive hesitation. "If they didn't want you to join them, they wouldn't be in the group room to begin with," she assured me. She fairly insisted that I go back right that minute and join the fun. Since it turned out that it was her husband in the room, I had to believe she knew what she was talking about.

Somewhat nervously I went upstairs and found myself in the doorway once again, watching the attractive man fuck a beautifully sleek black woman from behind, her ass raised high to receive him, her sounds quite believably passionate. They were both having much too good a time to notice me watching them.

The amused expression of the wife downstairs pushed me through the invisible barrier of the doorway into the room. I walked over to the couple slowly, trying not to disturb their focus, and knelt down next to the woman. The man noticed me then, and damned if he didn't smile in the most friendly, noncompetitive way, welcoming me to join their little pleasure circle. Then the woman looked over to me between moans and smiled also, reaching out one hand to sensually stroke my arm. "Isn't she beautiful?" the man marveled. As I ran my hand over her smooth back, her sides, the lush curves of her breasts, I had to agree. A minute later, the woman drew me around in front of her and without a word took my cock into her mouth. Each time the man pushed deep into her, I could feel the excitement move through her body, through her mouth, into my cock. My body was flying and, at the same time, my mind was reeling. How could something like this actually be happening? And yet there was no doubt in my mind that the woman was being genuinely attentive and sweetly affectionate in the way she touched and sucked me. The emotional warmth and physical intimacy that I immediately felt for both her and for the man whose cock was sliding into her so deliciously at the other end of her body, was also undeniably real. Before long we all came, each taken beyond our own experience by the excitement of the other two. Only when we calmed down did we so much as ask each other's names.

By the time I floated out of that room, a good deal of my previously clear and concrete notions about what constituted meaningful sex, passion, and intimacy, and how these had to do with each other, had been scrambled forever, leaving me in a state of delightful, if somewhat unnerving, confusion.

Surprises About Sex and Intimacy

Other experiences with group and public sex, both at conventional swing parties and at the more innovative Jack-and-Jill-Off Parties of the late 80's and early 90's, continued to effectively shatter one after another of the prejudices and misconceived sexual ideas I had unconsciously absorbed from mainstream culture despite my best efforts otherwise. I have had joyous and even profoundly intimate sexual experiences with partners I have not spoken to, partners I would never have expected to find interesting sexually, with men as well as with women, and with people whose gender I never did quite know for sure.

I have felt deeply connected with a sexual partner only to discover afterwards that I could not so much as carry on the most perfunctory of conversations with him or her. I have been in situations with multiple partners where the intensity of the collectively created sexual magic became totally distinct from anything as specific as personal connection between one human being and another. I have happily made myself vulnerable to utter strangers in ways that I once thought was only possible between people who had spent years deepening their connection with each other, and have had others do the same with me.

I have gotten to play the wonderful role of sexual assistant -- the person who adds sexual stimulus without upstaging the main sexual focus, the person who runs for a condom or for lube, or who slips a rubber glove onto the hand of a person who only has one hand free. I have had the marvelously pampered luxury of requesting such assistance from others only to have them be more than pleased to oblige. I have watched sexual connection inches from my face, delightedly taking in the nuances of how one person touches, licks, bites, or slides into the body of another. I have seen the avid interest of my attention enhance the sexual excitement of others, and have had the gloriously communal feeling of knowing that the intensity I feel at a particular sexual moment is being fully understood and shared by any number of appreciative onlookers.

I have experienced intimacy when my mind insisted their should be distance, and emptiness when my mind was sure there would be warmth. I have watched jealousy flare at moments when I could not understand why I was upset, and felt nothing but friendly generosity watching my precious life partner be transported by another person in a way that I could never accomplish myself. Most of all, I have learned how little we really know about the workings of sex and desire, and how wonderful exploring these worlds can be when these surprises take the form of emotional opportunities rather than feeling like emotional assaults.

Collectively Created Moments of Sexual Sanity

And then too, there is something beyond the various personal experiences and realizations that are made uniquely possible by group sex. There is the experience of simply being part of the collective transformation that occurs when an entire group of people steps out of regular sexual reality into what is really nothing less than a mutually created Sexual Free Zone -- a place where sexual energy is respected on its own terms, given room to find its rhythm and stride, and encouraged to flower into full inventive imagination limited only by respect for other people's integrity and for fundamental physical safety. There is something deeply powerful and confirming in knowing that -- at certain special moments, with the help of other like-minded people -- it is possible to create a fragment of sexual counterculture that is unquestionably sane, correct, wholesome and healing, no matter how completely bizarre such a context might appear taken out of context.

I remember -- late in one evening at a swingers party, exhausted and relaxed after an exceptionally pleasurable series of sexual encounters - - lying contentedly on my back, looking up into the mirror that covered the ceiling of the large room, watching a beautiful sea of naked bodies moving in any number of sexual ways, hearing the sounds of half a dozen different pleasures at once, while the overpowering smell of a long night of sex hung richly in the air. It was a moment of complete contentment, personal, relational, and social. I said aloud to whoever was lying next to me and to the other people around us, "This is how it's supposed to be. This is how we were before everything got twisted up and confused."

We had done together what none of us could do alone: found our way back to some unspoiled sexual sense, found our sexual way home. Of course the moment passed, and the confusions, hurts and angers born of a lifetime of sexual contortion returned, as painful and internally contradictory as ever. But knowing that moments of such complete clarity exist changes something for me about the whole ball of wax, leaves me a little clearer about myself and happier than ever to be face to face with the ongoing sexual mysteries.

So here's wishing everybody a happy and sexy 1996. Keep the faith, and may the force be with you.

[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
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