Welcome to Swingtown.
The 1970s are over, but some things are making a comeback: lava lamps, wallpaper, Donna Summer's concert tour and... swingers.
"The lifestyle" (as swingers fondly call it) is seeping into suburban, upper-middle class social scenes, and people are taking notice. Over drinks and dessert, discussions, once focused on home renovations and restaurant openings, are now giving way to talk about wife-swapping and tales of key parties down the block.
Last month, I attended an end-of-the-elementary-school-year family barbecue in my woodsy suburban neighborhood outside of Washington, D.C.
Sitting with four other couples as the kids played Wii downstairs, the parents' conversations turned from second grade teacher reputations and fourth quarter grades to the rumored "swingers" parties one community over. Those of us who had heard it before had a twinkle in their eyes.
It shocked those who hadn't — then sparked their curiosity.
Is this curiosity a throwback to the free-feeling '70s or are 30-and-40-something married couples getting restless?
Determined to unravel the mystery, I scored myself an invitation to a swingers club.
For one night, I gained access to the entire club and got introduced to women who could answer my overriding questions of "why do you do it?" and "how can you do it?"
Tucked behind a nondescript building and a 7-11 is The Tabu Social Club in Catonsville, Maryland. Once you see the blue awning with a fancy "T" you know you're in the right place. I remember marveling at how their elaborate black iron gate gave the entryway an almost regal quality.
A bit shaky as I climbed the steps of the building, I braced myself for what I might find.
My husband came with me — he was more scared than I was!
I encouraged him to have a few extra margaritas at the restaurant beforehand so he would relax a bit, but that didn't help him much.
The outgoing owners looked like people I might run into at a health club or local take-out joint. They greeted me warmly and introduced me and first-time member couples to our "tour guides."
A nice, friendly couple happily approached us and calmly began the tour as if we were checking out a model home or tourist attraction. When they suggested we start downstairs, the newbies and I followed them down a well-lit but long and narrow stairway full of fear.
I imagined what sights I would see at the end. Some kind of orgy? Group sex rooms in full force? Whips and chains? Some scene out of a movie?
Not quite yet.
It was still early — 10:45 p.m., and the tour began with trips to every "room." Theme rooms, swing rooms, voyeur rooms — you name it, there they were. Red lights above each doorway indicated what was free, and you had to schedule with the hostess.
From round beds that people outside the window could rotate by pushing a button for an optimal view, to a structured system that involved staffers scheduling rooms and changing sheets, ... the smoothness of the operation surprised and impressed me.
When they suggested we head to the group room, I tried to feel gusty. Sneaking up on a group of people actually having sex? Peering in, I saw all the beds were empty at this point. The guides informed me things would heat up later.
Couples of all ages and races gathered on the sofas near the "observation rooms" drinking and chatting. Many greeted each other warmly, like old home week. They told me about seventy percent of club members meet up on popular swingers' Web sites such as Club Voodoo.
Back upstairs, at first glance, the sprawling bar could have been a regular bar anywhere.
The club's policy was BYOB, and the moment you walked in the bartender smoothly took your bottles and put them on ice. But looking a little more closely, I could see signs this was no ordinary bar.
One woman who looked like she could have been a parent volunteer at my son's preschool suddenly thanked the female bartender with a passionate kiss instead of a dollar tip. A bartender took his shirt off and accepted five dollar bills down the front of his pants from virtual strangers.
I swear several nicely dressed women smiled right at me instead of at my husband.
By far, the most action occurred on the dance floor.
The clubbed planned a "blackout" for midnight (the staff distributed glow sticks throughout the night). They assured me security would be good and nobody would grope anyone without an OK.
I would have liked to stay later to see if more action happened, but my husband was anxious to go.
Three things struck me about the club atmosphere and clientele: everyone was in a great mood (and this is before the night's real action began), lots of people seemed to know each other and everyone seemed pretty relaxed.
The owners ran their club like a business, socialized like a host and hostess would anywhere, and seemed proud to preside over a club that so many people "in the lifestyle" called home on weekend nights.
As for the swinging and social scene? Strange, yes. Sexual? Absolutely. Sleazy? Only a few people who were so scantily dressed my head spun.
Surreal? You bet.
People may not understand it or condone it, but perhaps they ought to respect the choice.
Whether you are a woman swept up in thinking about the swingers phenomenon or curious to explore it, the big question on your mind must be this: Why do married women do it? How can they actually step into this world? I spoke to five happily married women swingers to learn more.